Monday, August 6, 2012

Canoeing/Kayaking Bear Creek in Alabama

Want some fun in the summertime? Like to canoe or kayak? Do you enjoy days with friends and family outdoors? Look no further than this small "spot on the map" that thousands enjoy every single summer in the south. It is about the ONLY place (during the hot summer months) within 80 miles of it where you can find a controlled and predictable water level every single weekend to float down a creek and have a blast!
I have known about this place for years, and so have locals. Over the past few years, it has exploded in popularity enough to where a commercial outfitter operates on this creek now. Where am I talking about? It's called the Bear Creek Canoe Run in Marion County, Alabama. It is just a few miles out from the small town of Bear Creek.

The Bear Creek Canoe Run or "Upper Bear Creek Run"is a stretch of water that has become famous over the years among those that love small boat sports.  

As described by TVA on their website:
"Upper Bear Creek Reservoir is one of four dams that provide flood damage reduction, recreation, and water supply in northwest Alabama. The others are Bear Creek, Little Bear Creek, and Cedar Creek. The Bear Creek area is popular with all types of boaters, including canoeists and kayakers. The Bear Creek Floatway, which flows from Upper Bear Creek Dam into Bear Creek Reservoir, is a popular spot for teaching first-timers to negotiate rapids and work with the current.
Below Bear Creek Dam, the Lower Bear Creek Canoe Trail provides a more leisurely float, running a total of 34 miles down the creek and all the way to Pickwick Landing Dam on the Tennessee River."

Some more facts on this place as stated on their website:
Upper Bear Creek Dam was completed in 1978.      
The dam is 85 feet high and 1,515 feet long.      
Upper Bear Creek Dam is not a hydroelectric facility. It has no power generators and produces no electricity.
Upper Bear Creek Reservoir extends 14 miles upstream from the dam.

Now that you know the background behind this place, lets talk about the canoe and kayak run. This blog is predominately written for first timers interested in going down this run.  The trip is perfect for whitewater kayaks, canoes of all sizes, and most all kayaks. It is a bit small for a 17 foot kayak but anything below that will work. It is perfect for the popular 9 foot kayaks that are selling everywhere. My wife, being tongue twisted with words talking to my daughter and I about us going out in our canoe and kayaks one weekend, used the term "Cohniacking". We belly laughed at her and the term has stuck in our family. It is the perfect trip for canoes and kayaks or Cohniacking". The trip I have been on many times is stated on the Alabama Whitewater Page as being 7 miles. My GPS twice has shown this to be a 8.86 mile run. Regardless, it is a day of fun you will talk about for a long time! I see many first time whitewater kayakers going down this stretch. It is perfect for anyone that wants to experience moving water for the first time. For the advanced folks in larger kayaks and canoes, I call it "The Chill Trip". A chance to chill out and relax and a chance to chill from the miserable heat of the summer months with this cool dam fed water. The water pours out of the bottom of the dam, so it feels ice cold.

The first thing to do is get there of course. The Bear Creek put in is located on Highway 241 just inside Marion County. For you GPS folks, the put in is N 34 degrees, 16 minutes, 41.21 seconds by W087 degrees, 43 minutes, 08 seconds (WGS84). For you non GPS folks, the put in is just south of the Highway 172 and 241 intersections in Marion County, Alabama (NW Alabama). It is a very small area beside the bridge crossing Bear Creek.  There are NO restroom facilities here so plan accordingly! Ladies take special notice of this! TVA runs the constant flow rate guaranteed of 220 CFS during the summer months only, but this makes it a magnet for boaters since most other creeks are dry this time of year. They only run this guaranteed minimum rate during weekends of the summer months and it ends on Labor Day weekend. You can poke around on the internet and find the TVA site for more information. Just enter "TVA Bear Creek" on a search engine and it will come up.  While we are this subject, another good source to read about this run is  During the summer months, I suggest getting there early, say 8 a.m. till 9:30 a.m. to unload your boats. Past 9:30 a.m. on Saturdays, traffic gets heavy and clogs the parking lot and will sometimes run out into the highway. I have had to unload my boat at times parked out by the highway. That is very dangerous and a pain to carry a boat so far. What really hoses the traffic, is when the one and only outfitter arrives with a van and a trailer full of boats. He or she expects to deliver their boats close to the put in location (understandably so) and this can really clog the  small parking lot. Once you unload your boats, naturally you will want to take a second vehicle to the take out and drop it off. The take out is located on the right side of Highway 172. To get to the take out from the put in, come out of the parking lot, turn left, cross back over the bridge and proceed north on 172. You will wind around up a hill and around a large curve and you will want to stay on Highway 172 proceeding north. You will pass the Highway 241 intersection on your right. Stay on Highway 172 until it dead ends into Highway 237. This is several miles so don't panic about missing a turn. There is a church at this intersection where 172 "T''s into 241, so it is a good "bench mark" for marking your turn coming back from the take out point. When you arrive to 237 at that church, turn left, or Southwest on what continues as Highway 172. At this church intersection that you are at, if you turn to the right, it is Highway 237 to Phil Campbell. Left it becomes 172 to Hackleburg. After you turn left on Highway 172, proceed on down a few miles and start watching for large TVA power lines crossing the road. Down past that a mile or so you will start going down into a canyon area. Look for Yellow posts on the right hand side of the road JUST before the Bear Creek bridge. This is the TVA take out point. Pull in here and I suggest parking up close to the road rather than pulling down as close as you can to the take out point. The reason is, it can get very crowded and if you park there close to the loading area, you might be there a while waiting on traffic such as the commercial outfitter rolling in with his trailer ready to pick up folks and blocking you in.  To my knowledge, there has been little problems of break ins in this area, so don't worry too much about the safety of your vehicle. There is a constant flow of people in and out of this area all day. Same is true at the put in. Once again here, there are NO restroom are changing of clothes type facilities. Guys will sometimes go off in the bushes and change into dry clothes here. The ladies seem to be out of luck.

 The run is actually one of the best runs in Alabama in my opinion for introducing people to running water. It is only a Class II at the most for every run except Factory Falls or maybe a class III just at the base of the falls. It is a mandatory portage because area and it is death warmed over if you decide to go off it. Signs warn you but many people can't or don't want to read them. The overall trip will start off with fast moving water and will go into some quiet areas, then pick back up. It goes back and forth like this until towards the end, where there is a small stretch where you have to paddle some, even with the current flowing. There are a couple of highlights of the trip to take in. Not to far down the stream from your launch is the famous "Rope Swing". You see it pictured on this blog. This is where "men become boys", and there is lots of fun here. Be careful because the bank and rocks are very slippery. I know a friend who lost a nice pair of prescription glasses here when his canoe flipped while getting out. If I told you of every rapid coming up, it would spoil the trip, so I will leave that for you to experience. It is spots like this that make it an ideal family trip.

About halfway on the trip, you will approach the strongest rapid on the trip, next to the one below Factory Falls. It is called "The Rock", and is THE place to take a lunch break. Everyone congregates on this rock to eat lunch, hit the bushes for natures facilities, and to relax and watch people go through this rapid which is right beside the large rock. The best thing to do is park your boat BEFORE the rapid. Haul your lunch over to the rock and watch people go down it. You will soon see the best way to go down it. After you eat your lunch, then go down the large rapids. From the rock, you watch people from all classes of society, all walks of life, and all skill levels come through this rapid. Some ace right through it while others turn over and articles in the boat go everywhere. It is great entertainment while you eat your lunch. When the water is low enough, people put on their life jackets and slide down the slippery slope that feeds into the rapids and go through it without being in a boat. I even watched a 5 year old go down it this way, several times! Most women could not stand to watch this and I agreed. The parents seemed so clueless of the dangers in this. If you go down this without a life jacket, I say "stupid is as stupid does". You are leaving no room for any error if you do this. THE ENTIRE area around this rock that has any water on it, is dangerous slick. If you are not careful, it will slam you to the ground like a 350 pound Sumo wrestler. Many like to creep across the stream before the rapids walking and go over to the other side where a natural water slide with an added rope by man is waiting you. You can slide down the rocks at incredible speeds. It is a great place to have a ball and to possibly break a leg if you are not careful. Most of the injuries in Bear Creek happen in this entire rest stop area, so be careful. You can also jump from the large rock off into the water. You can wade your way slowly out to the deep waters below the rapids to cool off. With the water being fed from the base of the dam, this is the most welcome water you could ever ask for in the middle of the summertime. The entire trip, the water is so cool, your body begs to take a dip. It is the perfect middle of the summer fun. I have been down this stretch in January, and you have to really watch water levels then, because it is not controlled. It is at natures mercy. It can be a fun float trip, or a raging dangerous place to be. If you search the YouTube channel, you will find bold kayakers going down Bear Creek when it is roaring, even down Factory Falls. Factory Falls with this high water level can be done fairly easy by experienced kayakers, but during the summer months, it would be a death trap to try it. You would plummet straight down into a large bolder.


Just a couple of hundred yards past the rock, you come to the mandatory portage of your boat on the trip-Factory Falls. Stay to the right side as you approach this area and pull your boat up onto the rocks. Use this moment to walk to the left over and look down at Factory Falls. It is a great time also to look over and see where you will be putting your boats back in after the portage. Some bold people put them back in on a class III rapid just below the falls. Unless you are somewhat experienced, I would not recommend that. You should put your boat in just about 20 feet past that last rapids. Here the water is calmer and you can put your boat up in a calm area  (eddy) while waiting on your party to get all the boats in the water with you. The picture above shows the put in point just below the rough water. Other boats are waiting on this boat just to the left out of the field of view. Take your time portaging your boats down to the put in point below the falls. It is all rock and a great place to slip and fall.

 At the time of this writing (August-2012), Strong storms a couple of months before dropped trees left and right along this last stretch. It is so bad that there are about 4 trees you will have to navigate through because they have fell into the water. It is not a major deal, but if you are not careful, a great place to try and do the limbo, and the creek will win! Take your time on this last half. You are finished with all the fast moving water that will make beginners nervous. Enjoy the trip, and if it is hot enough, it would be a great time to pause for one more swim. A cue that you are getting close to the take out point is power lines crossing the creek. Not to much further down you will see the bridge or Highway 172. Go under the bridge, shoot through some small moving water and on the right up ahead is some concrete steps. MAKE sure everyone in your party is aware of the take out point. Miss this and you will go for several miles before the next place to take out is. Worst case you would come out by the Bear Creek Outfitter by another highway, but you will be doing a lot of paddling because the water goes down to little flow rate by that point. Most trips I have taken show a put in around 9:30 a.m. and a take out from 3:30-5:00 p.m., depending on how long you stay at the rope swing, the rock or elsewhere. Have fun, be safe, and be sure and relax on this trip. Regardless if you are a veteran whitewater kayaker, or a first time canoe or long boat kayak paddler, this trip has something for everyone and almost any small boat. Don't have a boat and want to go on this trip with friends or a group? Check out the one and only outfitter at Bear Creek Canoe Rentals out of Hackleburg, Alabama. Their address and phone number are located on the web. Last question many might ask is, "Can I camp overnight along this route?". The answer is definitely NO! It is ALL private property along the way. TVA has campgrounds around Bear Creek Reservoir. You can find out more by poking around on the internet. One of these days property owners are going to stop the casual use of their property if the trash gets out of hand. I dread that day if it comes. Also, the water level at dark is returned to normal which is little more than a wimpy creek with little to no water flowing. At sunrise Sunday morning, they crank it back up. Remember, the water flow only runs like this during the weekends and only during the summer months! See you outside for another trip again down the road!